Have you ever made any of these common leadership mistakes with your kids?
You just found out a family member is sick. When your child asks you what is wrong, you wipe away your tears and say to them, “I am fine, sweetie! Nothing is wrong!”
Your 2-year-old hits you so you try to teach them empathy by pretending to cry and saying “OUCH- you hurt me!”
You are completely overwhelmed by your child’s behaviour and break down in tears in front of them.
Being a strong leader is a concept that Gordon Neufeld and Deborah McNamara talk about in their work. It is part of what helps our children have a secure attachment with us so that they grow into confident and emotionally healthy adults.
A secure attachment is formed when a child can count on someone to meet their needs and take care of them.
Kids need to be confident in our leadership so that they feel secure. Simply put, they need to feel like we can handle whatever they throw our way and that they are not “too much” for us.
This means we need to work on developing confidence in our own abilities, as well as figure out how to exude confidence even when we are not feeling at our best.
A good analogy for how to be a strong leader is the way a pilot handles turbulence during a flight.
The pilot usually calmly announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re going through a little bit of rough air. No need to worry. We will be through it soon. Just fasten your seatbelts on and sit back, we will get through this.”
Most people hear that and feel safe and secure.
Now imagine the pilot came over the announcements panicking with terror in his voice shouting, “This storm came out of nowhere, I have no idea what I am going to do!!!!”
EVERYONE would completely panic!
This is what it’s like to be a strong leader. When things are hard, we need to let our children know that they are safe and taken care of. Our children are more likely to be cooperative and there will be less conflict if they trust us and know that we have their best interest at heart.
We also need to take of ourselves to be strong leaders. We need to be able to meet our own needs and take responsibility for our own feelings.
I want to be clear that I am NOT saying that we should never show emotion or cry around our children. WE SHOULD! We are not robots.
What we want our kids to see is us modelling healthy expressions of emotions like sadness, frustration, annoyance, and even anger.
The key here is that our feelings are our responsibility. We really need to be explicit about this with our kids.
It needs to be clear that we can take care of ourselves. It is not their job to make us happy. It is not their fault if we are unhappy.
If we don’t make this clear, we may not set our children up for healthy relationships in the future. Instead, they might become “people pleasers” who struggle to set boundaries with other people and feel shame when someone is upset with them.
Even with such high stakes, we do need to be perfect at this.
(Side note: We don’t need to meet our children’s needs or get it ‘right’ 100% of the time. Research suggests that 30- 50% of the time is enough.)
What we need to do is set an intention to move forward in this direction, and give ourselves compassion during the times when we don’t get it right.
Being kind to yourself when you make mistakes is important emotional modeling as well.
Let’s revisit examples from the beginning of the article, and what we should do instead:
1. You are stressed and upset about something that does not have anything to do with your child. For example, a loved one is sick or you are having a difficult time at work. You have tears in your eyes and are feeling overwhelmed. Your child asks you what is wrong and you lie and tell them that you are fine.
Our nervous systems read each other’s nervous systems. Trying to pretend like nothing is wrong will not work because your child will be able to tell that you are upset- especially if you have a sensitive kid!
If your child asks you what is wrong, you need to be honest in an age appropriate way. If your kids are still little, you do not want to say too much. If they are older, you can give a bit more information. The key is we don’t want to overwhelm them with too much detail.
You could simply say “You know what, sweetheart? I’m not having such a great day. AND I can take care of myself so you don’t need to worry about me. It has nothing to do with you.”
We acknowledge that we are having a hard time, while also reassuring our child that it’s not their job to take care of us.
2. Your child is upset and hits you, so in order to help them develop empathy you pretend to be upset and say “OUCH! That really hurts me!” Or your child grabs something from you and says something mean. In order to try and change their behaviour you say “That makes me sad when you do that!”
I do not recommend that you do either of these things.
Whether it is your feelings or your body, strong leaders do not get hurt by little kids.
We are not equals with our children and they need to feel that we are strong and that they cannot hurt us.
Instead, we talk about social norms and correct our children’s behaviour without making them responsible for our feelings.
If your child is being physically aggressive you can say, “Hey, no hitting. Hitting can hurt. You can tell me how you feel instead of hitting.”
If your child says something hurtful you can say “Wow. You must be really mad to say that. You know what? Calling people names can hurt their feelings.”
If you actually ARE feeling emotionally hurt by something that your child has done or said, it could be a sign that you need to do some deeper work and look at your triggers. What do those words mean to you? If your four-year-old says you are mean or says you can’t come to their birthday party, what’s the story that you’re telling yourself about being liked or loved or appreciated?
3. It has been a really hard day. Your child is not listening to you and is having a huge meltdown. You are exhausted and overwhelmed by your child’s behaviour and begin to cry.
First of all, if this happens to you, I do not want you to tell yourself that you are failing as a parent. I always want you to give yourself a big dose of self compassion when you are having a hard time. We do not have to be perfect. Our intention, however, is to meet our own emotional needs when things are hard.
If your child is acting out or having a meltdown, and you are starting to feel really overwhelmed and upset too, we need to use our peaceful parenting pause button: STOP, DROP, and BREATHE.
STOP: We stop whatever we are doing – whether that is yelling or crying.
DROP: We drop our agenda. That means we let go of the interaction that we are having with our child just for a minute.
BREATHE: Take deep breaths- or do something else that feels comforting and grounding like putting a hand on your heart.
Remind yourself that your child is having a hard time, not giving you a hard time. If we get stuck in feeling like they are giving us a hard time, it is hard to be a strong leader because we feel like the victim in the situation and giving our child too much power.
You might say, “Wow, this is hard, isn’t it? Everybody’s so upset here. And you must be feeling really scared that I’m so upset. You know what though? I can take care of myself and I can take care of you too. Let’s have a hug and a do over.”
It is also okay if you need to take a little break to calm yourself down. Tell your child, “I’m going to take a few minutes to calm myself down and then I will be right back and we will work this out. We are a family that always works things out.”
The big idea here is that we need to calm ourselves down and let our child know that we can handle this situation.
We don’t ever want our child to feel like they are too much for us. That can make them feel really scared and anxious and like it’s up to them to fix it. We don’t want them to think they have to step in and be the grownup because their grownup can’t handle the situation.
Gordon Neufeld believes that a child can develop an ‘alpha child’ complex if they feel like their parents are consistently not being a strong leader. This can lead to an alpha child becoming very bossy, demanding, and controlling.
Children do not WANT to be in control! To go back to the pilot analogy, alpha kids feel like the pilot is not up for flying the airplane and that they have to step in and take over. Children much prefer that we are in charge and that they can rest in our leadership.
In order to create a healthy, emotional environment in our households, we want to model being able to take care of our own big feelings and let our child know that they are never responsible for them.
We want our kids to feel safe and secure in our leadership and know that whatever happens, we can handle it.
Just like the pilot flying through the turbulence, we want to project confidence so that they can rest in our leadership and develop into healthy, confident, independent adults.
Most importantly, I want to remind you to be kind, loving, and empathetic with yourself. You cannot do this work as a peaceful parent if you beat yourself up when you make a mistake. Even as you try to improve and become that strong leader, you need to be gentle and kind with yourself, just like you are with your children.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com
Thank you for this. It is ‘back to school’ time here and this came into my inbox at the perfect time. Strong, loving, emotional intelligent leaders to help us raise our future leaders. The ‘how to’ examples are fantastic.